Sunday, 10 July 2016

High Trail Vanoise, Petit Parcours, 2016

The second race I'd entered in the High Trail Vanoise weekend of races was the Petit Parcours (Medium Race) located in the gorgeous French Alps town of Val d'Isere. The name of this event is somewhat misleading, as are a lot of French words when you don't know the language. With 39km, +/-3200m through the French Alps, there is nothing "petit" about this course. The climbs are big and intimidating, along with the altitude and technical nature of the terrain. All up, it was the perfect lead-in race for the upcoming Skyrunning World Championships in a fortnights time.
High Trail Vanoise Petit Parcours.
Unlike the High Trail Vertical Kilometer (VK) course two days prior, I'd be taking this race more seriously. I wasn't chasing a time or a result. I was participating so that I could acclimatise and get used to the long steep ascents and descents. There is no comparison between races in Australia and this race. The mountains are huge, the grades are seriously steep, the terrain is as technical as they come and a large portion of the course is run at an altitude, where if you are a "low lander" like me, is really noticeable. 

To refresh my memory of what I was in for, I read my blog from the Ice Trail Tarentaise Altispeed race in 2013. The Altispeed race follows much of the same course as the Petit Parcours. I wasn't sure why the course got renamed and slightly altered, as a lot of information gets garbled in translation from French to English. Prior to the race Brian and I managed to check out limited parts of the Petit course beforehand, along with some higher sections as it had been two years since I'd run above 2000m in altitude. Having arrived in Val d'Isere four days prior to Sunday's race, I was not sure what benefit I got from acclimatising in such a short time frame, but it had to be better than nothing, right?
Made it though gear check.
Come race morning, I arrived at the starting area. The first hurdle of the day was to pass through the mandatory gear check. I was hoping beyond hope that my translation of the mandatory gear list was correct. In broken English the guy checking my gear ran through the items, touching and feeling each item, as a merchant would before purchasing ones wares. The last item to be checked was crampons. My translation app said that crampons were "optional", but apparently this was not the case, they were "highly recommended". After some discussion and gesticulation between the guy checking my gear and the gear checking Captain they let the small English speaking girl through with a waggle of the finger and a shrug of the shoulders. This I translated as " I deserve what I get out on the trail." Was it too late to withdraw?
We are off!
Amongst a gathering of well dressed European trail runners, I started the race behind a silent electric trail bike. We skirted the town of Val d'Isere along a gentle incline as the vehicle trail we were following wound its way around the hillside before descending into the next small village of la Daille (4.0km, +200, -240m), further down the valley. Before arriving at the village, we  were joined by the Grand Parcours runners who were running 67km, +/-5400m. They had started predawn and summited a 3653m glacial peak (Grande Motte) beforehand in the early morning light. Once our trails joined we would run the remainder of our races together as both our courses shared the same trail all the way back to Val d'Isere.
The descent into la Daille.
As we entered la Daille, I was greeted by Mum, Dad and Brian. Brian counted me off as the 6th woman in the Petit Parcours. Our race bibs were slightly different with a blue and orange band, as opposed to the two blue bands worn by the Grand Parcours runners. The first big climb of the Petit Parcours commenced immediately upon departing La Daille. It was almost a VK in its own right. Up, up, up we went. Unlike the VK course earlier we had a defined trail in which to follow. This trail had numerous switchbacks, but the grade of the trail was "douche grade", where running was no faster than power walking. By the top I'd managed to power walk past a few girls. Not to sound degrading, but by this stage most of us were power walking and by passing I mean that instead of me following closely behind them, they were now following closely behind me.

What I thought was the top was not the top. Instead I was greeted by another small valley surrounded on three sides by large scree slopes and towering mountainous peaks above. The ground at this elevation was scattered with large patches of snow. The trail made its way around these patches of snow, but where necessary it traversed the snow, which seemed to occur a lot. In the perched valley, echoing around me in this natural open air cathedral was the clanking sound of rocks as they cascaded down the mountain side to join the rest of the crumbling mountain on the scree slopes below. I've often been told that the mountains are a leaving beast, and now I can understand why.
Almost at the top of the first big climb. This is looking back during a course recce.
The trail took us over the lowest pass in this perched valley, then it was a short but steep descent down the other side towards a hydroelectric dam (Lac de la Sassiere) and another checkpoint (9.4km, +1200, -540m). Apart from the dam wall holding back a sizeable lake, there was little to no sign of human influence, which is what's most appealing about this area and what I love most about the sport. Running in nature is just so simple, and its reward is being able to interact with the natural environment in its purest form.
Lac de la Sassiere. The trail took us to the right, higher into the mountains.
Once at the top of this climb the trail skirted around several 3000m peaks. On paper this stretch around the far side of the mountains looked a lot easier than what it actually was. Up the hill from La Daille, over the perched valley, up around the far flanks of the mountain then the descent into the next village, Le Fornet, to meet up with my crew. Simple, right? The trail however was extremely technical with loose rocks and large sections of snow to contend with. I lost count of how many times I'd fallen over. As I found out after the race, I wasn't the only one to find this part of the trail difficult as even the fastest runners were being slowed by this challenging leg. Along this section of the course I noticed that my breathing was becoming more laboured and I could feel the effects of running above 2500m on my body. I wasn't alone in this feeling, as the other runners around me were also expressing signs of fatigue. The vast majority of the field were French and not many could speak or understand English, so any French words, presumably encouraging, were met with a smile and a nod from me interspersed with the occasional grunt.
Accordion and trumpet players in Le Fornet.
After a -950m descent I finally arrived at the next village, Le Fornet (17.0km, +1550m, -1460m), which is located on the higher side of Val d'Isere in the same valley. It is a cute alpine village and as us runners arrived we were greeted by two musicians, one playing an accordion and the other playing a trumpet. It all made for a very surreal experience as I exchanged my empty flasks for full ones with Brian and restocked my pockets with food. Again, from reading the bibs, Brian informed me that I was sitting in 4th place. From La Fornet it was almost entirely uphill, climbing +1400m to the highest point on the course, Aiguille Pers. I joined a conga line of runners as we followed the trail up through the fur trees, with their smell providing a pleasant subtle fragrance. On the way up I was cheered on by fellow Aussies and La Sportiva Team mates Aaron Knight and Tom Brazier who were also in Val d'Isere to compete in the High Trail Vanoise events. It was good to see them and to receive their encouragement.
The road crossing between Le Fornet and Col de l'Iseran.
Sitting in 4th place on the climb I was thinking about how tantalising close to a podium 4th place was. I hoped that with the race barely half way run perhaps I could snag a podium if I stayed focused for the remaining course. As the fur trees gave way to the flowering alpine meadows I caught sight of, and then passed the girl ahead to attain a podium position. Now instead of chasing a podium, I was motivating myself to keep it.

I ran as much as I could.
The rocky terrain started to expose itself and the higher I got the more scarce alpine flora became. Just near Col de l'Iseran (highest paved pass in the Alps at +2765m) I was met by Mum and Brian at another checkpoint (22.1km, +2400m, -1460m). The struggle to reach this point was already telling on my body. My lungs were burning and my legs were feeling slow and heavy. There was a very runnable section of trail for about one kilometer before the checkpoint, which in my mind was runnable, but was such a struggle to actually do.
Feeling very small against the mountain on the way up to Aiguille Pers.
Leaving the checkpoint I could see Aiguille Pers ahead, the mountain that marks the highest point of the course at 3386m. From this checkpoint it was almost a complete march to the top. We followed a sketchy single trail which traversed the lower scree slopes of the mountain. The loose rocky terrain was interspersed with sections of snow and the steepest sections had a fixed rope for us to use. I don't believe that my absent crampons would have provided any more grip in the snow than the Akasha's which I was wearing. Also, it appeared that the other runners weren't using crampons either, if in fact they were carrying them. Traversing and climbing in the snow required a special technique, which I seriously lacked. I found that shorter strides with a solid toe kick into the snow proved to be the best technique. Ascending above 3000m was causing me to get a little light headed and I was feeling a little giddy as the climb went on. Every time I looked up to the trail ahead the top seemed to be no closer. The marked trail ran pretty close to some large cliffs and I wondered if it was indeed the correct route. I remember thinking, "surely the race organisers wouldn't send us up there!". Alas, they did. I could see people ahead just above me and a moment of relief started to creep in that I was finally at the top, until my eyes caught sight of a higher peak a little further on. At this point I was having serious reservations about doing this event. It was definitely too late to pull out.
Aiguille Pers is the peak in the middle of photo. Col de l'Iseran in bottom right of photo.
Finally, after reaching the peak of Aiguille Pers, the trail started its descent back towards Col d l'Iseran. Similar to the ascent up the mountain, the terrain interchanged between loose rocks and snow. Descending in the snow was much easier than the ascent. I could stretch out my stride a lot more and I practiced finding that tipping point whereby I could ski for short distances using my shoes. I could also feel my breathing becoming noticeably less laboured the lower I got in elevation. The dizziness I felt earlier also abated the lower I got.
Lots of snow to practice my descending technique.
After this big circuit up Aiguille Pers, I pretty much kept my place in the now strung out field. Upon returning to Col de l'Iseran (30.0km, +3060m, -2125m), Brian said that I'd closed the gap to the girl ahead. He pointed out that she was just 500m ahead and that he could see her in the snow on the ascent up to the Tunnel des Lessieres (31.0km, +3230, -2125m), which marked the final climb of the race. I'd done this short section up to the Tunnel with Brian two days earlier, so I felt confident in pushing a little harder on this final climb. The grade of the trail in the snow was quite gentle, and the few short sections where it kicks up had steps cut into it. I climbed up too and passed through the tunnel then followed the trail down the other side as best I could. In my exuberance to get down I'd overshot a turn by a considerable distance. By chance I looked to my left and saw the markers high above me and some people further along the trail. I was cursing myself for missing the turn as I climbed back up the slope to rejoin the trail. The snow on the other side of the tunnel was a little softer than the snow on Aiguille Pers. There were sections while running over it where even my light weight broke through the delicate crust and my leg quickly disappeared into the snow. Being the final stretch, and mostly downhill, I pushed hard towards the finish.
There was no easy way up to Tunnel des Lessieres. I'm silhouetted against the snow.
Coming down the final slope I could hear the announcers French accent. In fact I could hear the announcer for quite some time as the slope was more of a mountain. The grade of the trail was quite steep and the loose stones meant that I still had to keep my wits. I could see the finish area below, which means that if I face planted those at the finish area could probably see it. My descending technique wasn't pretty. Brian confirmed this when he pointed out the high powered video camera and gigantic screen which was set up at the finish area.
On the big screen in Val d'Isere. Thank goodness I didn't fall over on this section!

Crossing the finish line I was surprised to discover that I was in fact first female in the Petit Parcours. On the final big descent I'd managed to pass the girl ahead, and the girl that Brian through was leading had instead run the Grand Parcours with a Petit race bib. I though things had got lost in translation again, but apparently not. So after 6 hours 53 minutes and 4 seconds out on the course I finally got to sit down and have a rest. I was so glad that I hadn't decided to step up and do the bigger Grand Parcours. Maybe next time though.
Just so people didn't think I was Austrian.
La Sportiva Akasha shoes.
La Sportiva T-shirt
La Sportiva Snap Short
La Sportiva Trail Gloves
La Sportiva Headband
Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta 3.0.

Ultimate Direction Body Bottle.
Ultimate Direction cap.

Petit Parcours podium.

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